Thursday, 12 August 2010

An ‘authentic experience’, aka the most touristy I have ever felt…

The last couple of days have had me quite torn about the way I feel about them. As part of the tour, one of the activities was a visit to the famous ‘floating islands’ on lake Titicaca, followed by a homestay with a local family on the island of Amantani, a community of agriculturalists who farm for 6 months of the year, then supplement their income during the dry season with visits and overnight stays from tourists.

The idea is sound – the families rotate who has visitors, and we are encouraged to bring gifts of useful items of food, bought from a market in Puno (the town we were based in before heading out onto the lake) as thank you’s for our family, and it was pleasing that we were discouraged to bring too many sweet products due to the poor dental hygiene, and focus on staples for the whole family.

We set off on day one, taking a boat for around an hour before reaching the floating islands. Their construction is genuinely fascinating – the community use naturally buoyant reed groups to lay multiple layers of reeds which have to be ‘topped up’ all the time as the bottom layers rot after being submerged in the water.

The feeling of walking over the bouncy, gently sinking reeds was strange, a little like a trampoline. The atmosphere was peaceful – the lake water gently lapping up against the islands, which move slightly with the wind (but thankfully anchored down so they don’t drift too far!). My concern with it all was the big show the community put on for us on our arrival. I’d have liked to have wandered around the islands, just seeing how things were built (everything was made of tightly bundled groups of reeds), but the influx of tourism has resulted in full shows from the islanders, pulling us into their houses and dressing us up, then leading us quickly towards their market stalls. Even an optional trip on a traditional boat turned into a show, with the children performing songs in several different languages. I can completely understand why they do it, and I don’t begrudge them making the extra money. I also see the demand for it and how it must have grown – some of the tourists on the islands were clearly very much into the performance, asking for more. For us though, it was a shame that we weren’t really able to see the islands at all, as the entertainment was constant and there was no getting away from it.

We got back on the boat, and a few hours later arrived at Amantani Island, where our host families were waiting. It was a steep and completely exhausting hike up to the community (not helped by the 4000m altitude), which had us all gasping for breath. The stay was advertised as a way to experience the genuine daily life of the community and the families within it, but again, the entertainment program was so heavy that we actually had minimal time in the house and with our hosts. It was a shame, as they seemed really lovely people and we would have liked more of a chance to speak to them (well, try to speak to them – our Spanish hasn’t improved that much!). Although I did appreciate the fact that our particular family got on with their lives around us, it made me feel a little less of a ‘tourist’, I would have liked to have spent more time around them, rather than the organised group activities on the island.

There were some great aspects though – the island, although lung-busting, was beautiful, terraces reaching up to the peaks and colourful traditional clothes contrasting with the yellows of the landscape that created bright bursts across the land. Lake Titicaca is stunning and huge, stretching out in all directions like a bright blue blanket. The food our hosts cooked for us was delicious, quinoa soups stuffed with numerous types of potatoes, soft cheese and fluffy pancakes. Watching our host mother juggle several pots at once over an interestingly shaped oven and create gorgeous tasting meals with few ingredients was a pleasure, and the home was cosy and warm.

Overall, I think the experience of the couple of days was a good one – the brief insight into the lives of some of the rural communities here was fascinating, and the atmosphere a peaceful break from cities and towns. However, I wish the companies organising these trips would recognise that many visitors are perfectly content just observing and learning about the lives the people live, rather than needing constant entertainment and put-on activities which left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

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